The strength-training methods I use today are different from those I practiced before I spent 13 weeks as a guest member of Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite, a professional running team, in the summer of 2017. It’s not that I lacked commitment to strength training prior to this experience. As a self-coached athlete I hit the gym three times a week for 20-minute full-body strength sessions. But my Flagstaff experience resulted in changes that have enabled me to strength train more effectively.
The NAZ Elite team meets every Thursday for a one-hour strength workout designed and overseen by brothers AJ and Wes Gregg at Hypo2 Sport. Runners are expected to do a second, similar strength workout on their own, something I chose to do on Mondays. My very first team strength workout was embarrassing and eye-opening. I came into it thinking that strength was my strength, so to speak, but that first session just about killed me. I realized then that I had been coasting through my solo strength workouts—just checking the box by doing the same, familiar, comfortable exercise again and again in a half-assed sort of way.
Two separate factors made these professionally designed strength workouts tougher. One was exercise selection. Many of the exercises required balance and challenged important stabilizing muscles that are underdeveloped in most runners—including me, apparently. An example is the single-leg reverse deadlift, which entails standing on one foot and reaching a dumbbell toward the toe of that foot with the opposite hand by tilting the torso forward and kicking the non-supporting leg out behind. A muscle-bound bodybuilder might sneer at the puny size of the dumbbells we used to perform this exercise, but when he tried the exercise himself and couldn’t complete two reps without losing balance and touching the other foot down, he would cry like a little baby, and when he woke up the next morning feeling sore in muscles he never knew he had, he would cry all over again.
The other factor that made pro-style strength training tough for me was the intensity of the sessions. Virtually every exercise was done until it hurt. For example, when I saw side planks listed on the workout sheet I was given at the start of my first team strength workout, I celebrated, because I did this exercise at home—one 30-second hold per side, three times per week. I was forced to do three 75-second holds per side, and it was the single most painful thing I did in Flagstaff, including all of my run workouts.
It’s impossible to quantify the benefits I derived from this hard work, but I’m certain I benefitted. Within a few weeks of arriving in Flagstaff I felt like a different runner—tighter, lighter, more athletic, even younger. One of the main purposes of strength training as a runner is injury prevention. I did not escape Flagstaff without injury, but that’s what the second component of pro-style strength training is for: rehab.
The same guys who administer the strength workouts for NAZ Elite—the aforementioned Gregg brothers—are also chiropractors who function as full-service physiotherapists. I dealt with two minor injuries and one major one during my summer with the team, and each time I got dinged up, AJ gave me corrective exercises intended to restore function and prevent the problem from recurring. A typical exercise entailed lying face up on the floor with a resistance band looped around my feet and pulling my right knee toward my head while keeping the left leg straight. Collectively, these exercises made my body more balanced and functionally symmetric, and enabled me to overcome the breakdowns I experienced and race well at the Chicago Marathon.
I’ve incorporated much of what I learned about pro-style strength training into my new 80/20 Strength Training Plans, available here: https://www.8020endurance.com/strength-training-plans/.